How I learned to love cataloguing (but never quite stopped worrying)

After dipping my toe in EAD, drowning in ISAD(G) and drinking in the theories behind archival Arrangement and Description, I have finally dived into the deep end of the murky pool that is archive cataloguing.

In theory, by the end of the year, I will have produced a complete catalogue of the business records in our collection, spanning 1850 – 1959. In practice, by early 2017, I will need to have produced a catalogue with at least the structure of our entire collection, including all the oddments, accidental survivals and miscellanea peppering our business series and making life a lot more interesting than I would like.

Is there such a thing as a typical cataloguing project? Is archival theory ever really reflected in reality? This is my first real cataloguing project, and I’m beginning to think of the archive catalogue as more of a process than a product: it changes as our understanding of the records grows. Philosophically speaking, it should never reach the point where it is ‘finished’ – there is always more to understand. But, in more pragmatic terms, a catalogue is a research tool and I have a deadline to produce it. There are two major handicaps already: the collection is split between two institutions (for various complex and irresolvable reasons), and has already been catalogued from series /5 onwards. I am responsible for /1 – /4. A lot of my job involves backpedalling frantically and seeing how far I can bend the existing structure without breaking it completely.

Right now, this is how I feel about the catalogue:

That moment when you’re packing to move house and all of a sudden your life feels like a STUFF EXPLOSION, and you know things have to get worse before they get better, but you can’t even remember a time before the STUFF and can’t imagine a time when it will ever be tidy. And then, you pick up a shoe and put it in a bag along with the other shoe, and put the shoes in an empty box, pick up a pen and write ‘shoes’ on the side, and see a small patch of bare floor showing through like blue sky on a rainy day. ‘Maybe,’ you think to yourself, ‘just maybe, I can do this, one box at a time.’

(Incidentally, this is also an accurate description of my life right now, in the middle of moving from 20 miles South of my workplace to 30 miles North of it.)

And yet… sitting in our cold office, gazing wistfully out at the beautiful gardens… there is a unique kind of joy in arranging records and gradually seeing the structure of a C19th business emerging. I’ve learned about things I never knew were fascinating, like the wonderful letterheaded papers of fin-de-siècle industries, and the rising tide of legislation in the workplace (which, coming from a coal-mining and steel-working family, I see as A Good Thing). The lives and stories of hundreds, maybe thousands of people can be glimpsed through the contents of these records: special dispensation for children to leave school and start earning, compensation paid to workers injured by machines, a scrap of graph paper from the Great Depression with stark calculations of the profit margin, the many wonderful ways Victorian businessmen could wind each other up in formal correspondence…

I am also learning to love Records Management, the more practical and less charismatic twin of Archiving. Perhaps, if we get involved early enough, archivists of the future will never find themselves despairing over how to reconcile the principle of ‘respect des fonds’ with a watercolour painting by a celebrated inmate of Bedlam which just happened to be lodged in roll of invoices. It may remove some of the randomness I love, but it might also help clarify where future-equivalent watercolours came from and what significance they have to the collection. My loss of fleeting amusement would be history’s gain.

But, for now, I’d better figure out where on earth this painting came from.

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One thought on “How I learned to love cataloguing (but never quite stopped worrying)

  1. Pingback: a year of writing honestly | Hello

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